Can workers run the world?

December 8, 2014

Paul D’Amato has been a regular writer from the earliest issues of Socialist Worker. He has completed an expanded and updated version of his book The Meaning of Marxism. The book ends with a collection of answers to the most commonly voiced objections to socialism and Marxism. SW is serializing this section from The Meaning of Marxism--in part one, Paul unravels some of the myths about human nature being a barrier to socialism.

People are naturally competitive

A common argument against the possibility of socialism is that human beings are naturally competitive. But cooperation and altruistic behavior are among the most distinctive features of human life. Without them society could not function. A number of studies bear out the idea that though humans are capable of competitive and selfish behavior, they can be cooperative and altruistic starting from a very early age.[1]

The lavish praise heaped upon rich benefactors and the way their names grace public buildings (well, until corporations started taking over naming rights) gives the impression that the chief charity givers are rich people. Not so. Studies show that the poorest 20 percent of Americans give 2.3 percent of their income to charity, while the richest 20 percent give only 1.3 percent. Of course, 1.3 percent of millions of dollars is a lot easier to publicly flaunt than 2.3 percent of $25,000. The rich do it for show, to demonstrate their high character, when in reality, explains one psychologist, they are "way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people."[2] Engels sharply expressed his disdain for capitalists' charity, railing: "As though you rendered the proletarians a service in first sucking out their very lifeblood and then practicing your self-complacent, Pharisaic philanthropy upon them, placing yourselves before the world as mighty benefactors of humanity when you give back to the plundered victims the hundredth part of what belongs to them!"[3]

Even as it encourages individualist thinking and competition, capitalism is in a certain sense a breeding ground of cooperation. Mass production and distribution would be impossible without it. In every workplace, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people must labor cooperatively to turn out a product. This socialized, cooperative aspect of capitalism is a partial negation of market competition, and it provides the basis for workers' own sense of themselves as a class whose interests compel them to take collective action.

The biggest problem with the "everyone is competitive" argument is that in a society based upon equitable sharing, people won't need to fight over resources. "In the socialist society, when there is plenty and abundance for all," wrote American Trotskyist James Cannon, "what will be the point in keeping account of each one's share, any more than in the distribution of food at a well-supplied family table? You don't keep books as to who eats how many pancakes for breakfast or how many pieces of bread for dinner. Nobody grabs when the table is laden. If you have a guest, you don't seize the first piece of meat for yourself, you pass the plate and ask him to help himself first."[4]

The point is that, under socialism, society's surplus wealth would be collectively used to enhance the welfare of all rather than that of a small group. Why would I steal what was freely available? Such a society may seem too utopian. But as Cannon said of capitalist society, "What's absurd is to think that this madhouse is permanent and for all time."[5]

"Hang on," say the naysayers, "without competition, creativity and invention would stagnate. There would be no incentive to work hard, to achieve." The implication of this, one of the oldest arguments against socialism, is that capitalist market competition is the best and only guarantee of hard work and innovation.

Marx and Engels dealt with the question in The Communist Manifesto. "It has been objected," they write, "that upon the abolition of private property all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us." Their answer is as simple as it is devastating: "According to this, bourgeois society ought long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer idleness; for those of its members who work, acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything do not work."[6]

The majority of people do not work for their own benefit, but for the benefit of others. Their only incentive is that without work they cannot survive. Yet there are plenty of examples of people putting in hours of hard work for no financial gain. Anyone involved in high school or community theater can attest to the satisfaction that comes from pouring hours after school or work into making a theatrical production come to life. How many people devote themselves to pursuits like music and art with no expectation of ever being able to give up their "day job"? I myself met many ordinary people in Mississippi and Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina who came from all over the country to bring supplies and distribute food to the storm's victims. I met a student from a Nashville divinity school who spent hours in the polluted floodwaters of New Orleans helping stranded Katrina victims onto dry land from rescue boats. Those boats had been donated or commandeered by concerned citizens.

Nor can the argument be leveled that socialism takes incentive away because it doesn't allow for personal possessions. It is only property used to exploit others that socialism prohibits. Socialism will allow for people to have more, not less, of the things that enhance their lives, like leisure time, good quality food and shelter, access to art and culture, and so on. The incentive to invent better technology will remain, and be enhanced without the profit motive, because such inventions will improve everyone's quality of life.

Workers can't run society

A further argument against socialism is that the majority, the working class, is incapable of ruling collectively. We need educated, intelligent experts to run such a complex system. The legendary stupidity of George W. Bush, whose rich parents and crony friends bought him passing grades and much more, is a strong argument against this view. "I think we are welcomed," said Bush, when asked about Vice President Dick Cheney's predictions that Iraqis would greet US troops with open arms. "But it was not a peaceful welcome."[7] When Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva showed him a map of Brazil, Bush exclaimed, "Wow! Brazil is big."[8]

There are many other examples that could be cited of presidents, industrialists, and bureaucrats with limited, or nonexistent, abilities. "Howard Hughes was another mediocrity," wrote Paul Foot.

He started life as a playboy and ended it as a lunatic. He had no ability at all. Yet through a mixture of luck and the ability to read a balance sheet, Hughes became the boss of a gigantic financial and industrial empire. He was able, almost alone, to nominate the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, who also had no ability, knowledge or skill of any kind. Howard Hughes designed an aeroplane which crashed and directed a film which was a monumental failure. He couldn't do anything which mattered. Yet he made the decisions. The list is endless. Successful capitalists, almost to a man, are not people with any natural ability. Yet they decide what the experts do.[9]

Most people at the very top of society, the multimillionaires and billionaires, play no direct function in society's running--they merely collect the rewards of ownership. The ruling class today has become entirely parasitic, siphoning wealth but serving no useful social function. As early as 1881, Frederick Engels wrote that the capitalists had ceased even their former supervisory role over the production process. "The social function of the capitalist here has been transferred to servants paid by wages; but he continues to pocket, in his dividends, the pay for those functions though he has ceased to perform them." The capitalist's function is merely to "speculate with his shares on the Stock Exchange." Engels concludes, "Thus we find that, not only can we manage very well without the interference of the capitalist class in the great industries of the country, but that their interference is becoming more and more a nuisance. Again we say to them, 'Stand back! Give the working class the chance of a turn.'"[10]

Bankers and investors don't make steel. It hardly takes intellectual brilliance for someone who inherits a million dollars to double or triple it. Society could do away with the ruling class and suffer no more than when an appendix is removed from a human body. But do workers possess the capacity to rule? Won't they still depend on experts? Often it is workers' own hard-won, firsthand knowledge that engineers and managers use to figure out how to improve production, that is, to squeeze as much out of workers as possible. Not to deny the genius of a Newton or an Einstein, but "if science is understood in the fundamental sense of knowledge of nature," writes Clifford Connor in his People's History of Science, "it should not be surprising to find that it originated with the people closest to nature: hunter-gatherers, peasant farmers, sailors, miners, blacksmiths, folk healers, and others forced by the conditions of their lives to wrest the means of their survival from an encounter with nature on a daily basis."[11]

There are many examples of workers demonstrating admirably their ability to run their workplaces under their direct control and supervision. From the Paris Commune to the Russia Revolution, from the Spanish Civil War to the Argentinazo of 2001, workers in struggle have, for various reasons and under various guises, seized control of their workplaces and have attempted to run them, and in some cases, link them together with workers in other concerns. During the rebellion in Argentina in 2001, there were dozens of factory takeovers, the most famous being that of workers at Zanon ceramics (renamed FaSinPat--Fábrica Sin Patronas [factory without bosses]), a factory in Nequén, and the Brukman textile factory in Buenos Aires. Workers at these and other "recovered" factories proved that they could take over and run operations successfully through democratic assemblies. "Without workers," one of the workers at Zanon explained in 2002, "a factory does not function. But without bosses, yes, it functions--and very well indeed! With all the other comrades we are going to demonstrate that the nation functions with the hands of working people and not with the thieving hands of the politicians."[12]

It would be wrong to think, however, that workers could become the masters of society simply by taking over workplaces, one at a time. As Marina Kabat explains, the worker-controlled factories in Argentina were "subdued by the dynamics of capitalism," which continued to exist outside the factory walls and imposed conditions on each enterprise over which the workers within them had no control. Debt obligations, outdated equipment, the need to secure loans, find markets, purchase inputs, and to indemnify the former owners, forced these enterprises to behave like typical capitalist firms or go under. Many couldn't survive. "Others managed to persist," writes Kabat, "but at the price of self-exploitation of the workers."[13]

As Rosa Luxemburg noted, a worker-owned enterprise or cooperative must, if it is to survive, impose on itself the same exploitative conditions that exist in capitalist-owned enterprises. Workers in such an enterprise are, she wrote, "faced with the contradictory necessity of governing themselves with the utmost absolutism. They are obliged to take toward themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur--a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production cooperatives, which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers' interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving."[14]

The failure or incorporation of worker-owned enterprises is not proof that workers can't run society, but that their attempts to create islands of control and self-management will be thwarted unless they are able to unite and centralize their efforts, taking command of all aspects of production and distribution. For this, workers must seize political power, without which they cannot be in a position to reorganize the economy as a whole.

Of course creating a new society does not mean making immediate administrators and planners out of waiters and nurses. But given the opportunity, everyone is capable of learning the scientific, administrative, and mathematical skills necessary to play a direct role in running society, just as in pre-class society knowledge of terrain, plants, and animals, or of tool-making, was shared by the group, and not treated as the monopoly of a minority. As Lenin wrote a few weeks before the October Revolution:

We are not utopians. We know that an unskilled laborer or a cook cannot immediately get on with the job of state administration. In this we agree with the Cadets, with Breshkovskaya, and with Tsereteli. We differ, however, from these citizens in that we demand an immediate break with the prejudiced view that only the rich, or officials chosen from rich families, are capable of administering the state, of performing the ordinary, everyday work of administration. We demand that training in the work of state administration be conducted by class-conscious workers and soldiers and that this training be begun at once, i.e., that a beginning be made at once in training all the working people, all the poor, for this work.[15]

Experts and scientists would still be needed for a time even under socialism, until the education system was improved so that the majority received education that today is only reserved for the privileged few. For a time, workers would have to exercise democratic control over the bookkeepers, managers, and engineers. But with society's vast resources diverted toward education, the distinctions between mental and manual work would break down, and the majority would be capable of doing many different kinds of jobs, from manual work to scientific work to administrative work. If workers, through their own directly elected representatives, were to seize control of production, no doubt mistakes would be made. But they would be the mistakes of the collective rather than the blind workings of the market--and could quickly be remedied by experience.

Take Chicago. Today, the priorities of the rich shape the city's policies. For example, at the very time that he was closing dozens of public schools, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in summer 2013 plans to use $33 million in tax money to help fund the building of a new basketball stadium at DePaul, a private university.[16] If the workers of Chicago ran the city, instead of corporate bigwigs and their corrupt political hirelings, they would immediately begin solving the city's most pressing problems. The homeless would be quickly housed in unused homes and empty apartments, excess hotel space, and the requisitioned second and third homes of the rich. Meanwhile, unemployed construction workers would be organized to begin building houses. The ill-gotten gains of the city's patricians and their hangers-on would be seized and used to feed the hungry, improve dilapidated schools and build new ones, provide better park services, update and extend transportation, and create real after-school programs for all. The run-down, destroyed ghettos of the West Side would become beautiful neighborhoods by redirecting the millions used to line the pockets of bureaucrats, corporations, and real-estate developers. Real jobs (and real job training) would be made available to the thousands of young unemployed African Americans, Latinos, and poor whites who have been left to languish in the streets or in prison, where their great human potential is wasted.

On a national level, billions earmarked for the utter waste of weapons of mass destruction would be diverted into projects that benefit the mass of the population. The solution to homelessness is simple--build homes for the homeless. But in our society nothing is done if it isn't profitable. In a society run by the collective producers, these problems can be solved because social need, rather than the market, will determine how decisions are made. In any case, better to do the right thing, even if at first inexpertly and badly, than to do the wrong thing well.


1. See, for example, Michael Tomasello, Why We Cooperate (Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2009); Robert W. Sussman and C. Robert Cloninger, Origins of Altruism and Cooperation (New York: Springer, 2011).
2. Ken Stern, "Why the Rich Don't Give to Charity," Atlantic, March 20, 2013.
3. Frederick Engels, The Conditions of the Working Class in England (1845), chapter 13.
4. James P. Cannon, "What Will Socialism in America Look Like?" in Speeches for Socialism (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), 405–6.
5. Ibid., 406.
6. Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, 63.
7. "President Bush on Iraq, Katrina, and the Economy," George W. Bush interview by Brian Williams, NBC Nightly News, December 12, 2005.
8. Elisabeth Bumiller and Larry Rohter, "Bush's Vision for Latin America: He Calls for Strong Democracies in Response to Leftists," San Francisco Chronicle, November 7, 2005.
9. Paul Foot, Why You Should Be a Socialist (London: Socialist Workers Party, 1977), chapter 3.
10. Engels, "Social Classes: Necessary and Superfluous," in MECW, vol. 24, 417.
11. Clifford D. Conner, A People's History of Science (New York: Nation Books, 2005), 2.
12. Quoted in James Cockroft, "Argentina: Workers' Control and the Crisis, Part I," Against the Current 103, March-April 2003.
13. Marina Kabat, "Argentinian Worker-Taken Factories: Trajectories of Workers' Control under the Economic Crisis," in Ours to Master and to Own: Workers' Control from the Commune to the Present, Emmanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini, eds. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011), 365.
14. Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, in The Essential Rosa Luxemburg, 80–81.
15. V.I. Lenin, "Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?" October 1, 1917.
16. Ben Strauss, "Critics Say Chicago Shouldn't Aid DePaul Arena with Closing," New York Times, June 23, 2013.

Further Reading

From the archives